James: We’re fresh off the Grandstand, watching Svetlana Kuznetsova gut out yet another 3-set win in terrible midday heat. Today, her victim was #3 Karolina Pliskova, who was to my mind as good a bet as anyone to win this tournament. She’s had a great year, having won three titles already. She was also the 2016 champ here in Cincinnati. But the conditions, coupled with Kuznetsova’s relentlessness, proved too much for Pliskova, and she went out rather meekly in the third set. Sveta’s moment is on point this week; she’s scrambling around the baseline, sliding, and twisting in all directions to reach balls. Not only that, she hit 30 winners today and broke Karolina three times.
After the second-set tiebreak -- which Kuznetsova bossed or Pliskova threw away, depending on your perspective -- the heat rule allowed the players to take a much needed 10-minute break. The temperatures are only going to get worse this weekend. This is expected in Cincinnati in August, but unlike the past few years, there have been very little clouds and rain as a respite from the heat. Jonathan, what did you make of that match, and how to explain Kuznetsova’s remarkable tournament so far?
Jonathan: Since we didn’t have a #TBSDiary for yesterday’s play, I feel compelled to mention that Sveta came into this match on the heels of totally dismantling Sloane Stephens 6-1 6-2. I asked her afterward if she was surprised by how easily she was able to get by Sloane given how competitive her previous two matches were. Her response: no. LOL. For Sveta, she’s seen it all at this point and she just cahhhhhn’t be surprised by anything on a tennis court anymore.
That said, I was a bit surprised by the result today, especially after Sveta got off to such a slow start. Pliskova was blitzing her through five games, and it looked like it could be over in a flash. But, like she did against Yastremska, Kuznetsova eventually got used to the pace and started to dictate play more and more. It was a wily, veteran performance. There may be a bit of magic for Sveta here in Cincy this week. She gets to play Ash Barty for the first time in the semis.
James: Richard Gasquet, one year younger than Kuznetsova, has put together a surprising run here as well. Today he knocked out the highest remaining seed in his half, Roberto Bautista Agut. Bautista will make his top 10 debut Monday after a full five uninterrupted years in the top 30. I was hoping to see Bautista in the final against Djokovic, but we have to give credit to Gasquet. In January, Richard underwent groin surgery and took a 6-month break from the tour. He returned in May, going through a dry stretch save for a ’s-Hertogenbosch quarterfinal and his wins over Paire and Nishikori in Montreal last week. He told reporters that he never considered retirement during his injury layoff.
We talked on our latest podcast episode about the loads of upsets this week, the biggest probably being Roger Federer’s straight-set loss to a blazing Andrey Rublev. Federer said he was feeling unsettled on his serve, and this affected his entire offensive game. Rublev played a nearly flawless match, interrupting Federer’s rhythm and hitting something like six errors the whole time. I don’t think it’s too foreboding for the U.S. Open, though. Fans will remind you that Fed lost early in Cincinnati in 2008 and went on to win in New York (we won’t mention that he was 27 at the time).
The big upset today was Naomi Osaka going out to Sofia Kenin, who has beaten two world no. 1 players in as many weeks: Barty (Toronto) and Osaka here. Thoughts?
Jonathan: I think it’s a bit harsh to call that an upset. While Naomi lost the first set, she blazed through the second and looked in fine fettle by the time her injury struck. The timing of it is really horrible for Naomi, having played herself into form ahead of her title defence in New York in less than two weeks. She said in press that she was really happy with how she played against Hsieh and was especially pleased with how she’s been serving (she had 15 aces against Hsieh yesterday). For Kenin, wow, what a moment. She’s now made the semifinals in back-to-back weeks and looks more and more like the real deal with each passing week. In Toronto, she beat Hsieh, Barty, Yastremska, and Svitolina before losing to Andreescu. This week, she’s beaten Goerges, Diyas, Svitolina (again), and now Osaka. That is a fabulous run by any metric.
The other two women’s quarterfinals we haven’t talked about yet are Barty vs Sakkari and Venus vs Keys. While we’re writing this, Venus is down 2-6 1-2 to Madison. Venus just had an opening up the line on a forehand to secure an early break in the second, but dumped it in the net. As for the Barty-Sakkari match, what did you think?
James: I feel that Barty has had an important week of digging out matches against quality opponents. Sure, she’s not in top form yet, but her matches against Kontaveit and Sakkari might end up being beneficial in getting match tough on the summer hard courts. She’s been doing a fine job of getting out of her own way: staying positive and avoiding “panic stations,” as she put it. In a broad sense, it has been amazing to watch her grow into a top player these last few months. She still has a lot of doubters, but her grounded attitude and versatile game make her so dangerous.
I don’t want to forget Maria Sakkari, though. She showed her fierce competitive spirit in her win over #9 Aryna Sabalenka yesterday. I kind of thought she was done and dusted after letting many chances slip in the first set: multiple break points in Sabalenka’s last 2 service games, and mini-breaks in the 1st set tiebreak. I’m happy to be wrong. Sakkari was able to regroup and frustrate Sabalenka with her variety and quickness. I am so here for the rise of the Greek superheroine.
Jonathan: When this tournament is a wrap, that match between Sakkari and Sabalenka will be one of the few I will remember for a long time. Unfortunately for Maria, the scoreline today against Barty suggested it was a lot closer than it really was. Had Barty not blinked when she was up 5-2 in the first set, we’d have had a trouncing on Center Court. Like you said, Barty is rounding into form. She said in press today that she hasn’t been very happy with her serving. Mind you, she tossed up 12 aces today against Sakkari. Barty is one of those players that is so even-keeled on court (no matter which direction the match is going) that when she’s not playing near her best tennis, it can make you wonder how she was number one in the world. That said, when she is on -- and she was definitely on for much of the final two sets today -- her game is sublime to watch.
James: We often give short shrift to doubles, but big ups to Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski for stopping little bro Andy and Feliciano Lopez today. Andy and Feli played an excellent first set, managing to grab an early break, then snatching the set in a tiebreak after losing that break. But the doubles pros J. Murray and Skupski came back on the strength of very efficient serving (only 3 points lost on serve in the second set); they then took the match tiebreak 10-4.
Andy has announced that he will skip the US Open entirely this year. He feels that doubles has served its purpose for him now, as he’s looking to play more singles matches. He’ll take a wildcard into Winston-Salem next week, and is considering playing a Challenger during the Open. (By the way, Andy’s loss to Gasquet is looking better and better as Gasquet moves through the tournament.)
Jonathan: I notice you’re talking about everything under the sun except for the men’s draw, lol. Can you rectify that, please? I was particularly sad to see Nishioka having to withdraw due to food poisoning. That absolutely sucks; Nishioka was having a super week after beating Kei and then making his first ever Masters 1000 quarterfinal.
James: Hey, I talked about Gasquet and our boy RBA already! Kudos to the Russian guys, too. Khachanov weathered Kyrgios’ 2-hour temper tantrum with some dignity. He lost to Pouille the next day. Daniil Medvedev continues to win, besting all of his opponents in straight sets (Edmund, Paire, Struff, and Rublev). That makes 12 wins and counting over the last 3 weeks.
Jonathan: Okay, okay, I guess I wasn’t paying attention. I am so impressed by Medvedev tbh. He looked kinda gassed against Nadal in Montreal last week, but here he is again. If you’re keeping score at home, he’s now made the final in Washington, final in Montreal, and now at least the semis here in Cincinnati. That is no easy feat.
Wow, the women’s semifinals are now set as Madison Keys was a freight train taking out Venus. The two semis will see Barty against Kuznetsova and now Kenin versus Keys. If Madison plays like she’s played the last two matches, she’s got as good a chance as anybody. I know Venus will not be happy with any result but a title, but I think there are so many positives for her to take away from this tournament, chief among these is all the time she got on court in actual, back-to-back matches. And for the men’s final four?
James: Not many people in the world are beating Madison when she plays like that. To your question, the final slot of the men’s semis will be decided shortly between Djokovic and Pouille, with the winner to face Medvedev. On the bottom half, the two surprises Gasquet and Goffin will play for the final. It would be Goff’s first Masters final and Gasquet’s first since 2012.
I’m ready to sign off for the night, how about you? Tune in tomorrow for more writing on the Cincinnati semifinals, and we’ll have a final Cincy podcast episode out shortly. In the meantime, you can listen to our latest episode that we released today, below: